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Health Team

UNC scientists say new drug-like compound could treat pain without addiction

Posted January 10, 2018 12:35 p.m. EST
Updated January 10, 2018 7:03 p.m. EST

— Opioid pain medications have proven to be dangerously addictive, leading to tens of thousands of deaths every year in the U.S., but a new compound developed by scientists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill could be a key to solving the problem.

Scientists say the new drug-like compound targets a crystal-shaped structure in the brain called a kappa opioid receptor. The compound can help mitigate pain without the negative side effect of addiction.

"The idea was if we had the structure of these receptors bound to the drugs, we could use this information to create a safer, more effective medication," said UNC pharmacologist Dr. Bryan Roth.

Roth said most opioids bind to receptors on the surface of cells to relieve pain, but they come with possible side effects like nausea, numbness, constipation, anxiety, addiction, hallucinations and weak breathing.

Finding a Fix

Roth's staff, along with collaborators around the world, believe they have found a safer drug-like compound. Their findings are published in the journal "Cell."

"Basically, we found little parts within the receptor that we can target with the medication," Roth said.

Roth said the structure of the kappa opioid receptor will be shared with scientists around the world in universities or with pharmaceutical companies.

"Now, they are free to use this structure to accelerate drug discovery for themselves," Roth said.

Roth said scientists now have a much better understanding of how to create a selective drug to activate only the key receptor.

The next step is testing the new drug-like compounds in animal models.